In A Cruel Country

Legacies: A Chinese Mosaic

by Bette Bao Lord
Knopf, 245 pp., $19.95

A Higher Kind of Loyalty: A Memoir by China's Foremost Journalist

by Liu Binyan
Pantheon, 287 pp., $22.95

'Tell the World': What Happened in China and Why

by Liu Binyan, with Ruan Ming and Xu Gang, translated by Helen L. Epstein
Pantheon, 195 pp., $18.95

In her disturbing memoir of three and half years in Beijing, Bette Bao Lord, the author of the novel Spring Moon and wife of Winston Lord, the American ambassador until just before the Beijing killings, retells a traditional story which is wholly appropriate to Party rule in China:

Once a sage passed by a cemetery where a white-haired woman was wailing. “What tragedy has befallen you?” the sage asked.

“In these parts,” she replied, “there lives a man-eating tiger. Two months ago, it devoured my eldest. A month ago, my second son. This week, my youngest.”

“Why did you not flee from these ills?”

“Because more ferocious than man-eating tigers is corrupt government.”

Liu Binyan, aptly described on the cover of his memoir, A Higher Kind of Loyalty, as China’s foremost journalist, tells many terrible stories, too, of which this is one of the worst: in 1970, in northeast China, one hundred political prisoners are cutting grass. One of them unwittingly approaches the boundary beyond which prisoners are forbidden to stray. A guard calls to him to cross the line; the guard shoots him, and, after a night of lying in agony alone in the open, the prisoner dies.

“It sounded like a game,” Liu writes. “Killing a man for nothing.”

Only a Chinese person, who understands Chinese ways, could guess the motive: to put up a show of revolutionary vigilance—an important political quality, which was very useful for getting into the Party, for getting a promotion or at the very least a citation of honor. It was sure to be reported, and your name would undoubtedly be noticed by leaders.

In both books China emerges as a country still suffering from a long illness. Bette Bao Lord, who left China for the US in 1946, when she was eight, and did not return for almost thirty years, found “all Chinese were in pain, and taking their pulse, reading their temperature, charting every change and finding the cure took all the effort they could muster.” Liu, a Party member since 1944, when he was nineteen, realized that

all the so-called struggles between the left and the right in Party history had to be reassessed…. It was not a struggle between different sets of political beliefs, but between those who were more humane and more devoted to public interests on the one hand, and political opportunists seeking personal or group interests on the other.

If a foreigner used the same evidence to describe most Chinese as unwell and Party politics as nothing but a battle between good and evil, he or she would be attacked as culture-bound, if not racist. The charge would be redoubled if the foreigner offered further evidence, as do these two books, of the sadism of the party and the indifference and hostility of most people to its victims, at least until the last two or three years when, according to Liu, many Chinese found the courage…

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